1. TIMBUKTU, A STORY OF SAND, WINDS AND PERFUMES

The desert wind

In the Sahara, silence is a palpable presence. The sound of the wind or the noise of a vehicle arriving in the distance doesn’t eliminate the silence of the desert, rather it enhances it, making us conscious of its strange audibility.

In the desert, wind is a companion of silence.

timbuktu

An ancient town, encamped at the threshold of the desert, gets swept away by the wind day and night. Wrapped up in the red dust of the sand storms is Timbuktu: a city that was once a point of departure and arrival for many camel caravans and ships carrying African treasures up the Niger River.

For centuries Timbuktu exchanged its gold for science books, maintained schools of Islamic knowledge, and copied countless manuscripts by the hands of its calligraphers.  All the knowledge that arrived in Timbuktu through the desert was then spread across Africa.  In the deepest part of the European medieval Dark Ages, the city was a bright light of civilization and it attracted students and scholars from all over the Islamic world.

timbuktu

Now in Timbuktu, there are only some old, crumpled manuscripts left:  stored in old trunks, hidden inside in the mud houses belonging to the descendants of ancient scholars. The splendor of Timbuktu has been swallowed up by the sand of the Desert.  It is now a ghost town, a fallen disgrace, like a mighty Caliph who was dethroned, mutilated and then reduced to the state of a beggar, in the streets of his own capital.

Timbuktu, once a mythical city in the ancient world, is now no more than a village besieged by the dunes of the Sahara.  Nevertheless, this small town is hiding a huge reality that is still alive beneath the sands of its cemeteries and hidden in the old trunks full of manuscripts:  the light of Timbuktu’s three hundred and thirty-three Sufi saints.

For months I lived among the desert people:  my face wrapped in the blue turban of the Tuaregs as a protection against the burning wind and sandstorms of the Sahara.   Then one day I realized that the same potent wind that had once destroyed the city could also be the means of its resurrection.

The very wind that burns and dries all it touches could also power the blades of the windmills, pulling water up from belowground to give life to new gardens and provide free electricity to light up the mud houses and the dark streets at night.

eolienne7

Two years after repairing a dried up well of the Tuaregs, I decided to return in Timbuktu, inspired by the idea to transform the destructive wind of the desert into a wind of mercy.

Next episode: Windmills

.

.

2. WINDMILLS

windmill

The windmill was probably the first robot that man ever built. It works tirelessly for him; turning grain into flour, pumping water from the earth, giving light to the cities.

Countries have been built and exist thanks to the work of the windmills: think of  agricultural America or Hollard beseiged by the seas.

During my last trip to Timbuktu, I realized that my project to promote free water and electricity for the poor using the windmills would not be welcomed by the rich and the notables of the city nor by the energy company that controlled the water and electricity.
However I recalled the story of Don Quijote and it was a happy omen for me. He had decided to destroy the windmills, as their huge threatening blades seemed like monsters to him. But in the end, he lost the battle against those powerful giants: windmills always triumph over human folly.  And I hope they have the same success against greed.

I started my research in the same manner as does every middle school student who seeks information: i sat down at my computer and searched for information on how windmills worked, how to build them, and where to buy them.



In Timbuktu, metal drums are found everywhere. They are cheap and the artisans know how to work with them.





 

This one is fantastic, click wait for a few seconds



Vertical, how to build with iron sheets



 

Previous episode: The desert wind
Next episode: Back to Timbuktu

3. BACK TO TIMBUKTU

I left Italy during a snow storm.  The weather was so bad that the flight had to be postponed for one day.  I like when trips start off with complications because I know from experience that it’s a good sign.

VOL BAMAKO


I land in Bamako, the city of mangoes. Another world.

vol tombouctou

A small plane from Timbuktu takes me to the sands of the desert.

My friend Tahara hosted me at her hotel. It is the only hotel in the sacred city of Timbuktu that does not sell alcohol to its customers.
She offered me one of the employees at her restaurant to act as my guide and helper during my stay. He was a young Tamashek Tuareg named Al Mansour.

r
Al Mansour

I started right away to look for a suitable place to dig a well and install the windmill, that would have arrived shortly from France.
I was told that there was a shortage of water in the suburbs of Timbuktu, where water taps had not yet been installed. I went with al Mansour to check out the situation.
When you want to help resolve a problem, the first thing to do is to understand the situation, otherwise you will become part of the problem, instead of being part of the solution.
  It always takes a few weeks to begin to understand a situation, and I knew that, so I was not in a hurry. I plan to stay 2 or 3 months there.

The city was expanding into the sands of the desert that had besieged it. Strangely, Timbuktu is conquering the desert, but only to become part of it, like a desolate ghost town.
The rich people of the city hall design lots on a map, buy the land for cheap, and force the poor people to move further and further out. Then they build and sell real estate, making big profits. This is the reason why I do not want to dig a well for the poor people on public land:  it will increase its value and the powerful ones will expel the weak ones

In the suburbs, water is carried by donkeys. Water is needed there for 2 main purposes: drinking and building.  A lot of water is necessary to transform dirt into mud bricks.

After my visit to the suburbs I realized that it was not the right place. I would have had to buy a piece of land at a very high price and certainly within a short time the tap water would have been hooked up and the city would have expelled the poor people who had settled there.

Timbuktu seen from the suburbs of the city, with Al Mansour.

Previous episode: Wind mills
Next episode: The gardens of the americans

4. THE GARDEN OF THE AMERICANS

Two years ago when I came for the first time to Timbuktu, I had heard about a garden in the desert that the American missionaries had made 10 km away from the city.  They irrigated the desert  sand with the underground water which was pumped by two windmills.

Timbuktu windmill

I went to see for myself what they had done and was stupefied. I saw an oasis where fruit, trees and vegetables of all sorts were growing.
In fact, all the vegetables sold at the market in Timbuktu came from here.

Tombouktou culture

I had then asked the Americans how much the windmills costed and where they bought them, but they strongly advised me against using them because the water of that area was very sandy and the immersed part of the pump gets damaged very quickly. Then every 6 months you have to pull the pump up with all the 100 meters of piping in order to change the worn out pieces.

In fact their two windmills are not in functioning at the moment and the pumping is done with Diesel pumps.

windmill timbuktu

The first one was even knocked down by the wind and is now broken.

 

The blades of the second one are flailing around helplessly in the wind and the pump is missing.

They brought me to a well inside the compound where they had installed a prototype of “Timbuktu’s pump of the future” (in their opinion).  It is made of rope with discs acting as washers. The rope and washers pass through a tube, pulling the water up.  “It’s all done with local materials.” says the inventor very proudly, as he starts the demonstration by turning a big crank. After 3 minutes, it had pulled up a few liters of water but he had become all red, breathless and sweaty.

I could not take any photos because his invention is still a secret but I have drawn the design below..


The Flintstone pump

His pump may have some advantages over modern mechanics, but it seems even more difficult to pull the water up from a well in this way than manually with buckets. You would have to connect this pump to an engine just like other ones to get some amount of water.

In a poor country such as Mali it is the cost of gasoline and Diesel that will move any type of pump. Here, one liter of diesel is equal to the price of a worker’s daily wage.
This Flintstone pump is made in Mali but it does not resolve the problem at all.

The wheel of a windmill is able to drive their Flintstone pump system exactly as it drives mechanical pumps. Why do they advise me against the wind mills?  I am wondering.

In reality, the problem of the sand does not even exist.  They have a problem because they have chosen to drill a hole 100 meters deep  (the missionaries are  so proud of this depth) instead of building a big diameter well 25 meters deep, equipped with a filtering column of gravel. In a well of such high outflow (11 m2 / hour) the water settles quietly, and a normal windmill pump with a maximum flow of 400 liters per hours never gets sandy water inside.
Any repair on the pump will just require someone going down into the well without pulling the piping out.

It just seems that they do not want others to imitate them, and I do not understand why.  I do not understand why there are not windmills pumping water all over the region and why the little farming that is done is situated exclusively alongside the river.As far as 20 km away from the river, the whole region of Timbuktu is sitting over an ocean of sweet water, only 15 to 20 metres deep. It is an inexhaustible reserve that renews itself continually, supplied by the Niger River.

 

 

timbuktu cultivation
Timbuktu Farming

Moreover, in this region, the wind blows all the year round, except for two hours in the early morning.  Why should one buy Diesel for pumping the water when the energy is free?  The Americans of the last century have built their farming economy on the windmills. Constructing and maintaining a windmill is much less complicated and expensive than constructing and maintaining a Diesel pump.  Windmills are a pre-industrial technology. The first pumping windmills were constructed in Persia 1200 years ago.

 


Reproduction of a Persian Windmill

What’s more, the sand of this region is such that everything that is planted in it grows, if it is watered…

Cabbages, tomatoes, mint and onions, mangos and apples…

timbuktou windmills

Just behind the trees that surround the garden, on top of the photo, you can see  the dry sand where only thorns grow.

In brief, the windmill water pumps could transform Timbuktu and the whole region in a verdant oasis and restore the city with the abundance, wealth and luster of the past.  You don’t have to be a wizard to understand this concept, so I am wondering what malefic magic has prevented men from building windmills here which would raise Timbuktu out of its sands into prosperity again.

Previous episode: back to Timbuktu
Next episode : The orchards of Timbuktu

 

5. THE ORCHARDS OF TIMBUKTU

As it became clear that the suburbs of the city are not the right place for the project, I decided to start searching further away, a few miles away from the city, along the canal where some of the poorest people are living off the orchards that supply the city market with some of its vegetables.

Water is the biggest problem for the gardeners, and as I will soon realize, it is one of the many problems they face.

Most of these orchards are situated in the outskirts of the city, particularly along the Kaddafi canal where the water is shallower underground.

The gardeners get allotted an area of land by the city hall. Then they find sponsors to dig a well and they start working, clearing the land, watering it and planting trees. After a few years, the city politicians expel them, in order to sell the plots of land that they have reclaimed from the desert sands.

The city assigns them new, arid land further away in the desert so they have to dig new wells, which often gets them into debt with “charitable” western organizations.  And they have to begin the process all over again.

There is no way out.  The city is growing and the orchards cannot stay in the residential area, so their destiny is to be outside of the city. The city is not growing so much after all, but speculative profits on the land are growing very much indeed.

The life of the gardeners is very tough because the orchards constantly need water and not just a little of it.

The gardeners have no money to buy water pumps and even less to buy gasoline to power them, so the water has to be pulled up by hand. They fill two 20 liter buckets and then carry them to the orchard, sometimes 200 yards away. They water the small planted squares. One bucket for each one of these.

Then they start again. All day, every day, for their whole lives.

They are so busy pulling water that they cannot go to the market to sell their produce. They have to sell it at a cheaper price to intermediaries to sell at the markets.

When I cured these poor people with aromatherapy and acupuncture I saw that human beings were not created to haul and carry 40 kilos of weight all day, everyday. Their backs are all ruined and just touching their spine to locate a vertebra makes them jump from the pain.

And they cannot stop, ever.  In the desert, if water is missing for one single day, the vegetables die.

When the dry season comes, the level of the water along the canal drops and cultivation becomes even more difficult, as more effort is needed to pull the water up.

How wonderful would it be for them to have a windmill generated water pump and free abundant water without effort!

After visiting several orchards and talking with the gardeners, I understood that digging a well for them and installing the windmill made no sense long term, as they would sooner or later be pushed out of their location, leaving the land to speculators who would profit off the water.

I invited the heads of the canal gardeners to my place and I gave them a variety of seeds from some of the best Italian vegetables. I hope that in some way it might improve their life a little.

I have to search somewhere else for a place to install the windmill. Further away from the city, in the surrounding villages, but in the meantime something is happening…

Previous episode: The garden of the americans
Next episode: Tahara’s hospital

6. TAHARA’S HOSPITAL

 

After meeting 4 well-diggers, I am stuck.

I don’t feel confident in any of them. I do not know what to do. I don’t have a well-digger nor a location to dig a well, but I am not worried because during this first week in Timbuktu another parallel situation has developed so I am not left inactive.

It all started when I began to cure the people of the hotel with my aromatherapy essences. They were easy patients with disturbances that I knew well how to cure. Headaches, tooth ache, back aches, haemorrhoids…

The news spread very quickly that my medicines were good and the people of the neighbourhood began to come to the hotel asking me for remedies.

When the elderly arrived with their joint problems I cured them with acupuncture with such success that after a few days 15 or 20 people would be waiting for me every morning in the street in front of the hotel.

 

hopital_tahara9

The patients became so many that I could not cure them inside the hotel anymore and neither could I do it in the street. I asked Tahara to lend me her tent in the courtyard of the restaurant to receive the patients.

hopital_tahara1

She accepted willingly, without even taking into account that this invasion of patients could harm her commercial activity. Tahara is a generous lady from a noble family and a descendant of saints.
She is well known in Timbuktu and respected for her moral integrity and her dedication to helping others.

 

hopital_tahara2

 

 

Tahara also lent us a bed from the hotel in order to treat the persons who need acupuncture in the spinal column.

 

hopital_tahara3

 

I am curing these ill people every day, they are mostly the poor who cannot afford to pay the doctors of the hospital nor the remedies of the pharmacy.


hopital_tahara7

This is why I am not worried, even though I am at a stalemate with the well and with the windmill.
I have decided to wait a little in order to see if this situation unblocks in some way because I do not know what to do to unblock it myself.

In any case, how could I refuse to give relief to the children crying from their pain, or to those who are too poor to have access to the medical system.
How could I refuse, knowing perfectly that I can lighten their suffering and cure them with my essences and my acupuncture needles.

hopital_tahara5

We have raised a cloth wall to separate the patients from the hotel clients.

hopital_tahara6

The concern of mothers for their child is visible on their face.

Tahara’s hospital has been functioning only for 4 days and I realize that we cannot continue like this.
Too many people are coming, I am literally besieged in my hotel from morning to evening. Every activity in the hotel has become conditioned by the patients to the detriment of the clients.

It cannot continue but I cannot stop either, refusing to cure children and mothers, old people and poor ones. I have to find a solution…

Previous episode: The orchards of Timbuktu
Next episode: The wind rider

 

7. THE WIND RIDER

william_Kamkwamba_3

It’s not so hard to become President of the United State for someone whose grandparents are part of the Nation’s elite, who went to the best schools in the country, who has more money than the opponent to spend on the political campaign. Furthermore if the whole world agrees with this…

william_Kamkwamba_5

Then the endeavour of a young African boy from Malawi that dreamed of putting the force of the wind to his service is much more surprising.  He had to drop out of school because his parents couldn’t afford to send him anymore so he began building windmills that generated electricity out of twigs and pieces of shrapnel, without any technical knowledge or access to the internet.

william_Kamkwamba_1

His windmills attracted the attention of local journalists first and then from the international press. He was invited to America to tell his story, and then he wrote a book to inspire young Africans who he had become a role model for.

william_Kamkwamba_6

 

william_Kamkwamba_7

Look below to read his story in English.

 

On his website you will find interviews with him in America as well as other places, some pictures, his projects, and the option of being able to donate money to help him carry out his projects.
william_Kamkwamba_4

A Flintstone type windmill, but it works!

william_Kamkwamba_8

The story of this boy should be an inspiration for the young people of Timbuktu.

He has the exact opposite mentality that has developed in the city, in the wake of the “help” provided by the hundreds of NGOs that crowd Timbuktu, which do nothing but multiply the problems of the people.

Here, there are two prospectives for making a living: either working for a NGO or forming an association in order to ask for money from the NGOs.

I clearly saw in Timbuktu that there are 3 types of people in the world:  those who think that they should be helped, those who think they should help themselves and those who think they should help others.

Forty years of NGO activity in Timbuktu has created a culture of assistance and too many people belong to the first category. Through the example of this young boy, I would like to show the teenagers of Timbuktu that it is always possible to help oneself get out of problems and blocked situations.

A friend of mine used to say, “There are 2 kind of people in the world, those who make problems and those who resolve them.”

Forty years of NGO activity haven’t resolved any of the problems; they are here to stay.  This is why they must preserve the problems, or even increase them and maintain the people in their dependency.  Why not resolve our problems by ourselves as this boy did?

Do we have a mind to reflect? Africa is the richest continent on earth. Its people are the poorest ones. Where is the problem? Does Africa needs inventors, financiers and NGOs or does it only need to help itself?

I shall try to speak to the students in the schools of Timbuktu, it should not be too difficult.

william_Kamkwamba_2
Previous episode: Tahara’s hospital

Next episode: The king of the Touaregs